Kilmainham Gaol: A Shocking, Tragic Reminder

19 Apr

Upon first entering Kilmainham Gaol I remarked to my friend that it felt like the set of a horror film. She said something to the effect of, “Oh come on, it’s not like a lot of people were dying here or anything.” Guess she should have paid more attention in our Irish Life and Culture class.

Built in 1796, Kilmainham Gaol is a historic Dublin jail that was in operation until the mid-twentieth century. The living conditions for prisoners were notoriously poor for much of its operation. Kilmainham Gaol is perhaps most remembered for holding many of the leaders of the Irish rebellions, such as Charles Stewart Parnell and Éamon de Valera, approximately a dozen of whom were executed on site.

There still exist many easily overlooked features of the jail’s horrific past. For example, two white squares rest in the stone above the main entrance. These are the remnants of the two wooden pillars used for public execution. In the museum area, visitors may read a section of the prison’s manifest, detailing how children as young as twelve had been arrested for such crimes as a “breach of the peace.” However the most moving and disturbing artifact in the museum, may well be a letter by James Fisher, an eighteen-year-old Irish nationalist who was executed due to his minor involvement a 1922 Civil War skirmish. The letter is addressed to Fisher’s mother.

It reads:

Dear Mother,


I am now awaiting the supreme penalty at 7 O’clock in the morning but I am perfectly happy, because I’ve seen the Priest and I am going to die a good Catholic and a soldier of the Irish Republic. Don’t worry or cry for me, but pray for the repose of my soul and my three comrades. I asked to see you, but they say that they would see what they could do.


Ask all my friends and comrades to pray for me and Dick and my two comrades. Mother I would just love one look at all the faces at home, yours above all, but seemly that is denied me. I get everything I want now, which as you know is the usual stunt. Mother my heart grieves for one look at your dear face; but please God I will meet you and them in heaven. I picture how this will effect you, but Mother don’t fret, for remember I am happy. The Priest here is going to get to me to hear my confession, and I will receive at the altar in the morning. 


Lord Jesus give me courage in my last moments. If I had only got told on my sentence I would have been well prepared before now. Oh Mother if I could only see you, just again. Don’t fret Mother because I am happy.


To my Mother I dearly love, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye. 

We will meet again in heaven please God, Mother.

God Strengthen you in this ordeal Mother. 

I am to die for Ireland.


– J.B. Fisher

Since its restoration in 1960, Kilmainham Gaol has served as a reminder, shocking then somber, of the long and violent struggle surrounding Irish nationalism.


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